At least one reason why Belgium is not boring

Last year the London Telegraph ran a travel article about Belgium, “10 reasons why Belgium is not as boring as you think”. A bit patronising, right?

Personally, I’d never call a country which has dared to legalise euthanasia boring. Anything but. This is a defiant poke in the eye to hundreds of years of Western civilisation. Whether you agree with Belgium’s regime of legalised euthanasia or not, it is a wildly exciting experiment in disrupting established social norms.

The latest news is that a whistleblower has accused the country’s euthanasia commission of breaking the law, muzzling dissent, and packing the commission with euthanasia practitioners. In other countries this would be called corruption. The whistleblower's letter to the Belgian Parliament is a searing indictment of a respected institution. You would think that the Belgian media would be baying for blood.

Nope. It was an American news agency, Associated Press, which broke the story. As far as I can see, it has been reported around the world, but not in Belgium. It’s a funny kind of journalism which ignores such a big story.  Perhaps the media there believes that Belgium really is as boring as you think. Or perhaps they are in the pocket of the euthanasia lobby. 

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Sorry, readers -- this week's BioEdge is a bit abbreviated. 

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Conscientious objection twisting in the wind in Canada

For years bioethicists of a utilitarian cast have argued that conscientious objection has no place in medicine. Now Canadian courts are beginning to put their stamp of approval on the extinction of doctors’ right to refuse to kill their patients.

The Superior Court of Justice Division Court of Ontario ruled this week that if doctors are unwilling to perform legal actions, they should find another job (see report in BioEdge).

The case is sure to be appealed, but if the doctors championing conscientious objection fail, the consequences will be dire. Throughout Canada, doctors would be required to refer for euthanasia. If they refuse, they will be hounded out of their profession, or, at best, shunted into specialties where the question will not arise, like pathology or dermatology.   

This ruling shows how quickly tolerance vanishes after euthanasia has been legalised. In the Carter decision which legalised it, Canada’s Supreme Court explicitly stated that legalizing euthanasia did not entail a duty on the part of physicians to provide it. Now, however, 18 months and more than a thousand death after legalisation, conscientious objection is at risk.  

It also shows how vulnerable religious-based arguments can be. The plaintiffs contended that referring patients violated their right to religious freedom. While this is true, is this the main ground for conscientious objection? As several doctors pointed out in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year, “Insofar as all refusals of therapy are ultimately justified by the ethical belief that the goal of therapy is to provide benefit and avoid harm, all treatment refusals are matters of conscience.”

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First monkeys cloned in China

This week’s announcement by Chinese scientists that they had cloned macaque monkeys prompted a walk down memory lane for me. The scientists aver that they have no interest whatsoever in human cloning. One must take them at their word, I suppose, but the impulse to clone humans is a recurring lunacy.

Remember the Raelians? In 2002 Rael, the French-Canadian founder of the sect which believes that mankind was created by extraterrestrials and that cloning is a way to immortality, announced that his scientists had cloned a baby.

Remember Severino Antinori? The Italian gynaecologist announced that he had cloned babies in 2002. No proof was ever given. He is currently battling charges of kidnapping and forcibly removing eight eggs from a Spanish nurse.

Remember Hwang Woo-suk? The veterinary scientist claimed that he had cloned human embryos in 2004 and was featured on a South Korean stamp. Much of his work was fraudulent.

Remember Panayiotis Zavos? The Cypriot-American claimed in 2009 that he had implanted cloned 14 embryos and implanted them in four women. He has faded from the limelight in recent years.

I would wager that if the Chinese experiment is confirmed, there will be another wave of cloning attempts by rogue scientists. Watch this space.

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Singapore and gay parents. France debates bioethics. Dutch euthanasia dissent.

So much has been done; more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.

Recognise these words? They are spoken by the pioneering scientist Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s rich and intriguing novel. This year marks the 200th anniversary of its publication in 1818 and it is being celebrated with a number of academic conferences.

In the era of CRISPR, artificial intelligence, and reproductive technology, it’s a good idea to revisit the novel. Despite its Gothic excesses, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, is still an insightful critique of science and scientists. Make this your New Year’s resolution: “I will reread Frankenstein”.

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Back on deck

Hi there! We're back after a long and refreshing break -- in the mood to take suggestions for improving our coverage and improving our quality. If you have any great ideas, please send them along to or


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Happy Christmas! Happy New Year!

There will be no BioEdge newsletters over Christmas and New Year. However, we'll be working on ways to improve our coverage and presentation. Feel free to correspond and share your insights. 

All the best for the Christmas season to you and your loved ones. 

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Bioethics and ‘inappropriate behaviour’

There has been so much “inappropriate behaviour” in the press over the past two months, ever since movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a serial molester of women, that it deserves its own acronym, IB. IB is a euphemism for a range of appalling actions, like sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

And now, thanks to an Arizona Congressman we can add surrogacy to the IB list. Trent Franks resigned this week after revelations that he had pressured women on his staff to act as a surrogate mother. It’s not a pretty story, but it helps to expose the exploitative potential of surrogacy, which is so often depicted as generous and life-affirming.

Heads up: the next issue of BioEdge will be the last until January. Hey! Everyone deserves a holiday, even the staff of BioEdge. 

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‘Do not resuscitate’ tattoos. Rohingya and population control

Unlike issues such as euthanasia or stem cell research, the bioethics of tattoos is not highly developed. However, it presents its own challenges and complexities. What if a patient shows up in emergency with "do not resuscitate" tatooed across his chest? Is that a valid advance end-of-life directive? There are so many issues here. How do the doctors know if he (let's assume it's a "he") still wants a DNR? Did he get it when he was drunk? Was it voluntary? There are so many fascinating issues -- read our preliminary report below. 

On a completely different note, with Christmas drawing near, I’m making an incredibly self-interested suggestion. Why not put a copy of my recent book, The Great Human Dignity Heist: how bioethicists are trashing the foundations of Western Civilization, in someone’s stocking? It’s available through the Australian publisher, at Amazon and at Book Depository. I can’t think of a better gift! 

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Good scientists have to be curious, tenacious, creative, intuitive and analytical. And it helps if they are humble, as well. At least that is my impression after reading about the Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero (see below.)

Canavero is the latest figure in a long queue of talented scientists led astray just in the last couple of years by the glamour of celebrity. Dr Canavero would no doubt deny this, but the scientific community is very sceptical of his project to transplant living heads onto living bodies. And although he has not had a single success in this project, he is already dreaming of transplanting brains.

Celebrity and science can make a toxic mix. There is thoracic surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, another Italian, whose work on artificial tracheas was hyped as life-saving, but turned out to be fraudulent.

Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel was renowned for his controversial research. He had faked the results of his experiments and even his PhD. Michael LaCour made headlines for his surveys about changing minds about gay marriage. He never carried out the surveys.

Japanese stem cell scientist Haruko Obokata found an incredibly simple method for creating pluripotent stem cells. And in fact, it was incredible.

What makes extremely talented and creative researchers choose the path of a circus performer rather than a dedicated scholar? Everyone has a different story, but perhaps the ancient Anglo-French word vaynglorie (vainglory) expresses it best. Are there classes for post-graduate students in humility? Perhaps there ought to be. 

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